Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 18, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Fire can be the most terrifying thing in the world. Thankfully we’ve had a pretty mild fire season so far this year, but the past couple of years have seen enormous fires that have jumped from forests – which need to burn from time to time – to communities. Homes have burned. Firefighters have died trying to turn back the flames. Fire is unpredictable and dangerous and deadly. I was on the volunteer fire department during my internship year in North Dakota and I was on a prairie fire with my spray pack, dousing the flames. It didn’t seem like there was much danger in those little, barely knee-high flames – until the ground behind me that I had just put out flared up again, leaving me momentarily surrounded by fire. I was able to spray my way out, but for a few moments it was pretty terrifying.
Fire can also be the most comforting thing in the world. Think of a campfire, or a fire in the fireplace. Is there anything more relaxing? More mesmerizing? The flickering light, the crackle, the soothing warmth. Or think of the soft light coming from the flames of candles over a romantic dinner. Or think of the candles we light at church, or that people might light at home during their devotions and prayers.
Depending on the context fire can be either terrifying or comforting. This is how fire works in the Bible too. Fire, both as a symbol or metaphor and as a reality, can be either terrifying or comforting – or even both at the same time!
God came to Moses in the flames of the burning bush. This was a fire of revelation, of illumination, as God revealed his name as “Yahweh,” meaning “I AM.”
God came to the people of Israel as a pillar of fire. This was a fire of guidance, leading them in the direction he would have them go, leading them towards the Promised Land. It was a fire of comfort, as God reminded them of his presence with them in the dark of night.
There was the altar fire God had established in the tabernacle and later in the temple for burnt offerings. This was a fire of sacrifice, of atonement, of reconciliation.
God sent fire on Sodom and Gomorrah in response to their wickedness. This was a terrifying fire of judgement.
When Elijah posed that famous challenge to the prophets of Baal, God consumed Elijah’s offering with a fire so fierce it burnt not only the offerings themselves, but the wood and the stones and the ground underneath! This fire showed God’s power, and the impotence of false gods.
There is the metaphorical refiner’s fire that the prophets speak of to describe how God restore his people, burning away the dross. This is a fire of purification.
There is the fire of God’s word, referenced in our first reading for today from Jeremiah, where God asks, “Is not my word like fire?”
There is a fire burning across the pages of scripture, a fire that both terrifies and comforts. Any serious student of scripture knows this.
John the Baptist said that when Jesus came, he would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Jesus confirms this in our gospel reading for today, saying: “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish that it were already kindled!”
And so we have to ask ourselves – what kind of fire is Jesus talking about? We want to know, right? Is it the fire of God’s presence, the fire of illumination? Is it the fire of guidance and comfort? Is it the fire of judgement? Is it the fire of atonement, of reconciliation? Is it the fire of purification? The answer, of course, is yes. The answer is: “all of the above!” The fire Jesus brings is all those things and more!
Jesus is the very presence of God. He is God in the flesh, and so he illuminates for us who God really is. Jesus leads and guides us through the wilderness, through the dark of night, and into the Promised Land. Jesus brings judgement. We don’t like to talk about that, but he does. “For judgement I came into this world,” Jesus says in John chapter 9. But the thing about Jesus is that he has not just come to bring the fire of judgement – he has also come to be the altar fire which brings atonement and reconciliation. He is the refiner’s fire which purifies us through the forgiveness of sin.
“I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” Jesus goes on to say, “and what stress I am under until it is completed!” This is a reference to the cross. It is a figurative way to refer to his suffering and death. Jesus will soon be “fully immersed” in God’s plan to save. This is how Jesus will illuminate God’s presence with us. This is how he will lead us into the Promised Land. This is how he will simultaneously judge sin and bring atonement and reconciliation and forgiveness. It all happens through the cross. Jesus knows this won’t be pleasant. He knows it will involve betrayal and suffering and a cross – thus the stress! – but he is also looking forward to getting this fire lit.
Once lit, this fire will not bring peace to the earth. Quite the contrary. “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus says, “No, I tell you, but rather division!” Jesus goes on to list all kinds of relationships which may well be burned as some people come to follow him and others do not. They include some of the closest human relationships there are. Houses will be divided, Jesus says. Children and parents will be divided.
For the earliest Christians, this is exactly what happened. Some Jews believed Jesus was the Messiah, while others did not. Before long, those who believed Jesus was the Messiah were kicked out of their synagogues, their faith communities. Some were disowned by their families. Some even faced death.
This still happens today. I know a professor at a Lutheran college in California who had a student from the Middle East. She became a Christian during her time in college. She was promptly disowned by her family and told she shouldn’t return to her home country because her life was in danger due to her conversion.
This division happens in much more subtle, but still painful ways, as well. There are plenty of marriages where one spouse believes and the other does not. Instead of faith being the glue bonding them together, it becomes a source of conflict. Other times it is little things like non-believing family members who roll their eyes when it is time to say grace, or who can’t understand why you devote so much of your time and treasure to the life of the church. Following Jesus doesn’t always result in peace. Sometimes it brings division. Sometimes households are divided.
This part of God’s Word is hard to hear, especially for those of you who are longing for peace in your marriage or peace in your family. It is hard to hear for all of us who are longing for peace in our nation and peace in our world.
“Is not my word like fire?” God says. Indeed it is. Today the lectionary reminds us of this in no uncertain terms.
But this same fire that terrifies and troubles us also gives us the sweetest comfort. You have to look really hard to see it in our gospel reading for today, but it is there.
The good news in our gospel reading for us today can be seen in the fire in Jesus’ eyes as he is about to carry out his saving work. There we see his passion for the Passion! Jesus is determined to complete the work he came to do! He is eager to get this fire lit for all to see! He is eager to get to the business of saving us, even though it means bearing a cross.
In that fire in his eyes we see his great love for us. In that fire in his eyes we see God’s great love for the whole world, a love so great that he sent his only Son to save it.
This love has been poured into our hearts through the fire of the Holy Spirit. And so even in the midst of all the divisions we see, all the divisions we so painfully experience for Christ’s sake, we know the warmth of his love.
We are currently on our summer worship schedule with one worship service at 9:30am. This schedule will continue through Labor Day. Don’t forget we also offer an evening Vespers service with Holy Communion at St. Mary’s in Coupeville at 6:30pm on Sunday nights. See you at worship!
This year our Vacation Bible School program is being reinvented as an all-ages evening family camp. We’ll start each night with a family-style dinner, continue with multigenerational faith formation activities, games, and crafts, and conclude each night out at our fire put with s’mores and closing worship. On Friday night, those who wish can camp out on the back lawn of the church and enjoy a pancake breakfast on Saturday morning. Registration forms will be available soon on our website and in the church office. All ages are welcome! (Minors must be accompanied by a family member, unless other arrangements are made with Pastor Spencer or Beth Stephens.)
Join us for our annual outdoor worship service and church picnic! Worship begins at 11am. All are welcome. BBQ and beverages will be provided. Please bring a side dish or dessert to share. Three Sisters Family Farm is located at 938 Scenic Heights Road south of Oak Harbor.
DIRECTIONS (From OHLC): Turn left out of our parking lot onto NW 2nd Avenue, and then turn left onto Heller road. Turn left at Swantown. Turn right onto HWY 20. Travel just over a mile on HWY 20 to Miller Road. Turn left onto Miller Road. Stay on Miller Road (straight through the first stop sign) until you reach Scenic Heights Road. Turn right onto Scenic Heights Road. Drive 1.5 miles to the farm. The Muzzall home (a white house) will be on the left. The farm will be on the right.
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – August 11, 2019
Genesis 15:1-6, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
We live in a time of fear. This is especially true after the mass shootings last week. In the days following, people have been especially skittish. There was a motorcycle that backfired in Times Square which caused a theater to be evacuated mid-performance and sparked a stampede of tourists that sent several people to the hospital. A sign fell over at a shopping mall in Utah, sparking a similar panicked rush to the doors. Someone thought they saw a man with a gun at the headquarters of USA Today, sparking a massive response from local law enforcement, which later reported at a press conference that they found no guns and that no crime had been committed. People are increasingly afraid to be in public spaces, and when they are, more and more of them are making careful note of the exits in case they need to get out quickly.
But even before these most recent shootings, there has been in increasing sense of unease, a growing fear that something is off in our culture. A recent rant I read online seems to capture this unease well. This person wrote: “America is going through an unprecedented social crisis. The media is staffed by nutcases and grifters. Social media is engineered by zillion dollar companies to essentially rewire your brain. Everyone is on some combination of booze, pot, violent video games and porn. Nobody has any friends. Suicide is rocketing up. Depression is rocketing up, both at unprecedented levels.”
There’s some hyperbole there, to be sure, but not much! Add to this assessment our poisoned politics, the widespread breakdown of family and community life, and the lowest levels of church attendance in decades, and you can see why another commentator recently wrote, “It is hard to shake the feeling that the country is on a precipice.” There’s no doubt about it – we live in a time of fear.
What a balm it is, then, to hear these words our Lord Jesus has for us this morning. There’s a lot going on in our scripture readings for today, but I have been captivated all week by a single verse. It’s the very first verse in our gospel reading. There we hear Jesus say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Now I don’t want to pluck one verse out of a longer passage and make is say what I want it to say, which is a practice that is all-too-common in some corners of Christianity. I don’t want to be guilty of it myself. But at the same time I think there is plenty in this single verse that we can meditate on this morning. There is plenty in this single sentence from our Lord Jesus that we need to unpack and digest. This is a sentence that we desperately need to hear!
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Let’s parse this out. First, Jesus tells his disciples to not be afraid. He is speaking specifically about the fear of not having enough, the fear the disciples have about what they will wear and what they will eat and what they will drink, fears about having enough of what they need in this life.
But this isn’t the only time we hear these words in scripture. In fact, “Do not be afraid,” is the most repeated commandment in all of scripture! We hear it in our first reading for today too! There God speaks to an Abram who is anxious and fearful and confused about how or if God will keep his promises, about how or if God is present anymore. God says to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” And Abram believed the Lord. Abram trusted him – and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
We hear God say “Do not be afraid” in many other places too. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the Temple, the first thing he said was, “Do not be afraid. The same thing happened when Gabriel appeared to Mary: “Do not be afraid Mary,” he said, “for you have found favor with God.” When Jesus gave the disciples the miraculous catch of fish, Peter fell at Jesus’ feet and said, “Lord, go away from me, for I am a sinful man!” And Jesus said to him, “Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid.” This commandment is repeated in scripture more than any other. But it is more than just a command. These words do what they command! As we hear them our fear begins to loosen its grip on us. When God himself tells us to not be afraid, how can we not be encouraged by that? How can we not be strengthened by that? How can we not be less afraid?
In our gospel reading Jesus addresses these words to his “little flock.” This is such a tender and affectionate way for Jesus to refer to his disciples. The “flock” language also draws on the history of Israel being described as God’s flock, God’s special, beloved people who are shepherded and guided by him. They might be “little” – small in number, vulnerable in the midst of a big hostile world – but they are his.
We are that little flock today! We might feel little against the powers loose in our world today. Like Abram we might feel anxious and fearful and confused about whether or if God will keep his promises to us, about whether or if God is present. But Christ Jesus tells us, his little flock, to not be afraid. And why? Because, he says, it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.
What is this kingdom? It is not a nation. It is not a specific church body. Sometimes this kingdom is confused with either of those things – with disastrous effects – but the truth is that this kingdom our Father is giving us is something much bigger than both of them. This kingdom is described in our reading from Hebrews as “that city whose architect and builder is God.” It is described in Hebrews as “a better country, a heavenly one.”
But this kingdom is not just where we go after we die. We have that future hope as well, but it is even more than that! This kingdom breaks into our lives even now as we live by faith, as we live in hope. It is a state we live in now as God’s gracious reign takes hold of our hearts. It is a kingdom that becomes visible to others even now as we share the hope that is in us, as we share the love and forgiveness and mercy we have received through Christ. We give people a foretaste of this kingdom as we courageously seek to do God’s will. “On earth as it is in heaven,” right?
It is God’s good pleasure to give us this kingdom. We don’t earn the right to be there. We don’t bring it into being by our own efforts. This kingdom, where God rules our lives and our hearts, is a gift of grace, received through faith in Christ.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
I don’t have any special wisdom or easy solutions to the many deep problems facing our nation and our culture today. I’m not going to give you any thinly veiled instructions on who you should vote for or what laws you should support. Not only am I not entirely sure myself, but I also believe that Christians of good faith can come to different conclusions about many of these things, and that bringing a quasi-religious fervor to some of these issues is part of the problem.
What I am absolutely convinced of, however, is that more than anything else, the world needs us to be the people of God. That is to say, the world needs us to be people of hope, people of faith. The world needs us to be people of love and mercy. The world needs us to bear witness to the fact that although our world is broken and bloody, God so loved this world that he sent his only Son to save it.
We are sent to bear witness to this love – both in our words and in our deeds. This is hard. This is scary. We feel so small. We are so few.
And so our Lord Jesus says to us: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
The Father is giving you this kingdom here and now as you hear this tender word that pushes out your fears. The Father is giving you this kingdom here and now as you receive his Son, given to you in bread and wine for your salvation.
Through these means of grace Christ begins to reign over our hearts, so that instead of being afraid, we would be people of hope, living out God’s love here and now – on earth as it is in heaven.